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A Russian-Jewish DIY Sensibility in Brooklyn

Spending the day at Meshugeneh

Romy Zipken
June 18, 2013

On Sunday, a group of Russian Jews sat on the ground—on those puzzle-piece floor mats—arguing genially about the benefits of holistic medicine versus Western medicine. A massage therapist rallied for natural methods while a man in tie-dyed pants defended antibiotics and painkillers. A World War II veteran with a gold Star of David necklace draped around his neck offered his opinion: “When you feel pain,” he told the group, it’s mostly generated from “those four inches in between your head.”

With that dose of tough love, the group leader ruled a “temporary resolution.” The session was a little confusing; passionate ideas were bouncing around nonstop. But that day’s event was called Meshugeneh House of DIY. Had everything been linear, it would be improperly named.

On the roof the OfficeOps building in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a clear view of the Manhattan skyline, about 300 people showed up to the second annual get-together, organized by COJECO and RJeneration. The last one was two years ago in Midtown Manhattan, but the new location and chance of rain didn’t stop the crowd.

The idea of Meshugeneh was stated on the invitation: “We’re once again celebrating the Do-It-Yourself ethos, something our Russian Jewish forebears were doing long before it was appropriated by hipsters.” And the DIY culture did seem natural—possible even genetic—among the crowd. There were no tentative groups of friends linked at the hip, shyly deciding which tent to escape to. People were together then apart; joining in and creating.

The events were divided into sections: Spiritual, Mind/Body, Art, Skill, Kitchen, and DIY central. Guests could learn tantra or tango, create sock puppets with alter egos, or take Babushka’s Rugaleh class and learn those old Russian family recipes that you never quite mastered so you ordered some borsch and shashlyk on Seamless instead.

One of the program coordinators, Veronica Price, explained the event’s inspiration. She and her friends used to have DIY bonding nights. But being Russian Jews coming from all over the place, their interests were varied, so a collaboration of events was a necessity. And so this event came to be. Smart people talking about “where they’re coming from, where they’re going,” said Price.

Throughout the day, friends hugged friends they hadn’t expected to see. Others made new ones while getting hydrated at the water tent, which seconded as the pickle tent. “This is the only place where you hand out pickles and everyone takes,” said the man smiling as he doled out the salty, hefty treats.

The event was a little behind schedule, but no one seemed to notice. There was jewelry to be made and massages to be had. A man in a fedora danced with a red solo cup in his hand as two little girls played with feathers and hemp string. In the middle of the roof, a group of 20 learned Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art, from a young and ripped instructor. At the yoga booth, the breaths were loud and the instructor inviting. At the sauerkraut session, the room was stuffed with people salivating over that fermented cabbage goodness. The day turned into evening, and generations of Russian Jews walked around the rooftop, just doing things themselves.

Meshugeneh DIY celebrates the do-it-yourself ethos of generations past, as workshops include making your own sauerkraut, cheese, pickles, and vodka infusions, but also modern day pursuits like urban farming, meditation, genetic testing, jewelry making, massage, drumming, and tantra, showcasing the full spectrum and range of today’s Russian Jewish community.

Romy Zipken is a writer and editor at Jewcy. Her Twitter feed is @RomyZipken.